Discover more from CityBits
How Amsterdam Does Cycling (1/2)
Driving dominance? Dutch denizens disagree, decisively demonstrate dedicated discourse definitely does direct decision-makers'... decisions.
This is the first of a two part series. You can find the second part here.
Today’s read is ~5-7 minutes long.
In this update I’ll be covering cycling in Amsterdam. It’s a fascinating, but lengthy, topic so in order to do it justice I’ve broken it into two parts. Today’s update will cover why cycling in Amsterdam is great and the history behind it, and then the following update will look at how the city has maintained its success, some downsides, and potential barriers to implementation. Enjoy!
As you may already know from your own travels, social media or that annoying friend who studied abroad there, cycling in Amsterdam is extremely popular.
Some cities like to say they’re “bike friendly,” but Amsterdam really takes it seriously. We can see this in a number of different ways, namely…
The physical layout and infrastructure of the city is designed with cycling in mind. There are separate, protected bike paths everywhere and they are extremely well-maintained. Additionally, Amsterdam’s streets are built with traffic-calming measures (speed bumps, curvy roads, narrow sections, etc.) that are designed to slow down cars, making cycling safer, faster and more practical. More on this later.
The city’s development strategies and legal system heavily account for cyclists at all stages of long-term planning and policy. The government publishes extensive vision plans that ensure cycling remains a priority throughout the city. Additionally, as numerous travel blogs/guides will note, there is an unofficial right of way/hierarchy that exists on the streets, with cyclists at the top.
Finally, the daily habits of Amsterdam’s residents demonstrate their strong love of cycling.
58% of residents over the age of 12 ride a bike at least once a day.
An average morning commute in Amsterdam has ~72,000 people cycling to work. For comparison, in New York City this number is only ~48,000, despite having a population ~8x larger than that of Amsterdam’s.
A whopping 68% of traffic to/from work or school in Amsterdam is by bicycle (as of 2017).
Why it's great
So, who cares? Amsterdammerslove cycling, but why does it matter how people get around in a city? Well, it turns out this emphasis on cycling has significant economic and public health impacts. For example:
Reduced healthcare costs: We know that from an individual health standpoint, cycling is good for you as it reduces the likelihood of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, etc. From a citywide perspective, when you scale up these individual benefits across a whole population, there are immense financial advantages as well, since healthier people tend to put less strain on the healthcare system. One study found that the Netherlands as a whole saves ~€19B/year (~$22.5B USD, or 3% of their GDP) in healthcare costs just from their high levels of cycling alone. These savings are even more impressive given the fact that they spend only ~€.5B on cycling infrastructure investments annually.
More cycling = fewer cars: Making cycling safer and more convenient leads to a reduction of the share of trips taken by car, and fewer cars means…
Reduced emissions/pollution: Amsterdam prevented an estimated ~40K tons of CO2 emissions from 2010-2015 just from increased levels of cycling.
Less traffic: Bikes take up much less room than cars do in terms of congestion on the streets, and are also much more space efficient during transit/when parked.
Fewer parking spaces: This frees up room for other activities/businesses/public spaces, a concept I covered in my Taipei article as well.
Safer streets: Getting rid of cars also means fewer traffic-related deaths. Of course bike crashes still happen, but it’s generally harder to kill someone with a bicycle than with a car.A 13 year study conducted in the US found that bike lanes not only make cycling safer, they make driving safer as well, likely due to cars worrying less about cyclists coming into their lane, less dangerous swerving out of the way of bikes, etc. Cities with better cycling infrastructure had 44% fewer deaths and 50% fewer serious injuries compared to the average city, regardless of whether the person was cycling, driving or walking. Amsterdam’s traffic fatality rate reflects this, and at just 2 deaths/100,000 people is well below other comparable cities.
How'd we get here
Now you might be reading all this and thinking “Hey Max, that’s great for Amsterdam, but you could never cycle that much in <XYZ city>, Amsterdam has just always been like that, that’s just how the city is, etc.”
Because in fact, Amsterdam was not always like this.Now, it is true that the Netherlands as a whole has always had a sizeable cycling population, but to say that Amsterdam was always designed this way, or that their policies were always so pro-cycling, is incorrect.
Back in the 1960s, Amsterdam’s city planners and politicians came to the conclusion that the automobile was the way of the futureand began building new car-friendly roads, in some cases even paving over their famous canals to make streets wide enough for cars. In the 1960s and 70s, the number of trips made by car in Amsterdam quadrupled, while the percentage of trips made by bicycle plunged by ~60%. For a hot second there it looked as though Amsterdam was going to fully embrace the car. However, two key things occurred that helped steer its development towards the cycle-friendly city it is today.
The first was a fervent citizen protest movement against cars and the construction of more automobile infrastructure. In 1971, there were 3,300 automobile related deaths in the Netherlands, 400 of which were small children. Unsurprisingly, people wanted that to stop happening, so they formed action groups like “Stop de Kindermoord” (Dutch for “stop the murder of children”) which fiercely advocated for fewer cars and more bicycle/pedestrian friendly infrastructure.Along with other organizations like the Dutch Cyclists’ Union (aka the mighty Fietsersbond), these two groups gained tens of thousands of followers, staged massive protests and put enormous political pressure on legislators to reduce the amount of street space given to cars.
1973 Oil Embargo
The 2nd major factor came in 1973 when OPEC (a coalition of oil-rich nations) declared an oil embargo on the Netherlands and other western countries in response to their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This sent oil prices skyrocketing, and countries like the US responded by rationing gas, ramping up domestic oil production, and in some cases even asking citizens to not turn on their Christmas lights in order to conserve energy.
Meanwhile, the Dutch response was pretty much just to ask everyone to start driving less and cycling more. Then Dutch Prime Minister Joop den Uyl went on TV and declared every Sunday to be “car-free”, allowing people to calmly walk/cycle in the streets and discover (or remember) how nice things could be without cars. Some of you readers who have recently experienced NYC’s Open Streets program, or any other similar initiative, can probably relate.
Comparing Amsterdam’s progress: then and now
Here’s a quick visual comparison. This picture of the Gerard Doustraat, a main street in downtown Amsterdam, was taken in 1982.
We can see:
Cars parked on both sides of both streets
No clear crosswalks for pedestrians
The majority of space occupied by, or reserved for, automobiles
Now maybe this doesn’t strike you as inherently bad, but now let’s take a look at the exact same intersection in present day Amsterdam.
In this second picture we can see
Bollards (curb barriers) that make it safer for pedestrians/cyclists
More greenery, which adds aesthetic value and a host of sustainability benefits
Lastly, there still is space for cars in the back, but they no longer dominate the area like they did 40 years ago
Perhaps most importantly, in terms of efficiency and density, cycling is vastly better for cities. Just look at how many bicycles fit comfortably in the center, and on both sides of the 2nd picture. Seriously scroll back up and look at it. Now think about how much more space you would need if all those cyclists were driving cars instead.
Once we realize that Amsterdam doesn’t hate cars, it’s just that most modern cities are actually disproportionately planning around them, Amsterdam’s cycling system goes from some anomaly of cultural coincidence to an appealing and (more importantly) achievable goal.
Conclusion: it takes work, but change can happen
Today we looked at Amsterdam’s cycling history, and how their investment in cycling infrastructure has cut healthcare costs, reduced traffic fatalities, and brought immense quality of life improvements to its residents. However, if there’s one thing I want you take away from today’s update, it’s that this idea that “Amsterdam is a good cycling city because ‘It’s always been like that’” is ridiculous. Absolute, weapons-grade horseshit. Amsterdam’s ascension to the upper echelon of cycling cities was a conscious decision, and is demonstrative of how an organized, engaged citizenry can tangibly change their city for the better.
As Gerrit Faber of the Cyclist’s Union puts it
“It’s not what we have because of our genes. We built it – and other cities can too.” (source)
Well said Gerrit. It isn’t easy, and it might not happen quickly, but minds can be changed, new habits can be formed, and cities can always be improved.
That’s it for today! In the next update I’ll dive deeper into how Amsterdam has continued to improve on their cycling system, as well as examine some disadvantages and potential barriers to implementation for other cities.
If you want to read more about that, and you didn’t hate today’s article, please make sure to subscribe and absolutely POUND that like button so I can feel better about how much time I spent making memes for this.
Based on city proper, not greater metropolitan area.
I checked and “Amsterdammer” is the official term, though to my great displeasure they do not break it out by gender e.g. Amsterdames, Amsterdudes and the gender-neutral Amsterdenizens.
As of 2018, ~40% of funding for cycling infrastructure was provided by federal government, with the rest being provided by regional governments.
Trust me, I’ve tried.
Which is ridiculous, because we all know the real future of transportation is the Light Cycle from Tron.
Fun fact: the first president of this group was 20 year old Maartje van Putten, who would later go on to serve as the Dutch Member of the European Parliament.
Funny enough, turning off your Christmas lights is arguably another way to support Israel. *rimshot*
I realize this is slightly unfair because for many legitimate reasons, in 1973 the US was much more car reliant than the Netherlands. It’s also hard to compare an entire national policy with that of one small, densely packed city, so for the purpose of brevity I won’t go too far down this rabbit hole, but feel free to DM me if you’d like to discuss/have questions.
There’s actually a ton of benefits to having plants in cities but we’ll cover this in a future article.